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Clearing the Air

Maxwell King
The Heinz Endowments

In 1950, Pittsburgh's enormously popular mayor, David Lawrence, who would later go on to serve two terms as Pennsylvania governor, realized that while his city was internationally renowned as an economic powerhouse, its residents were paying a heavy price.

The air was clogged with smoke and soot from steel mills and other heavy manufacturers; rates of respiratory illnesses were some of the highest in the country, and to escape the ill effects, residents were moving ever farther from the city limits.

Pittsburgh was wealthy and on the move, but the long-term prospects for livability were bleak. The way work was done had to change and the way people lived in the city had to change. So Lawrence gained support in the business community for sweeping legislation that would clean up the air and water.

One of the most controversial programs was to order all city businesses and homeowners to switch from polluting coal to gas or other smokeless fuels for heating. Since the costs for residents and small business owners would be huge, community passions on the issue ran deep.

There was so much mail into the city's largest newspaper that the editor printed a special notice warning writers that their letters would have to be cut to just a paragraph or two. And the public hearings in city council were so packed, some residents were forced to wait out on the street for word from inside.

Lawrence's opponent in the primary, a union leader and city councilman named Eddie Leonard, saw an easy issue to ride into the mayor's seat. He played the unpopular smoke-control program to the hilt - even dropping lumps of coal on the desks of city councilmen who supported the "no smoke" programs. Some nice suits were ruined in the messy process of debate.

The primary election, with smoke control as the single issue, was the tightest Lawrence had experienced in his career, but he stood fast. As it turned out, voters in the poorest neighborhoods of the city - many of them African Americans and ethnic, blue-collar workers - didn't buy Leonard's populist line. They sided with clean air and water by voting to re-elect Lawrence.

The victory, Lawrence said later after winning the general election, "was a signal for a concentrated attack on the entire range of community problems. It was Pittsburgh's breakthrough."

The story of Pittsburgh's air and water cleanup bear out Lawrence's assessment. The region's rough transformation from an economy dependent on steel making and other heavy manufacturing, with all of its attendant pollution problems, into one that recognizes the tremendous quality-of-life value of clean air and water, can be traced to 1950s smoke control. Since then, the community has had the confidence to produce several renaissances, each with its own showcase of well-designed buildings; amenities like parks, stadiums, an ice rink and public art; riverfront development and improvements in recreational access to waterways.

It is a safe bet to argue that none of these would have happened if Pittsburgh still suffered from the nasty, soot-filled air that hovered over the city until the 1950s.

But even as Pittsburgh's economy is now more diverse and anchored by a variety of greener industries - life sciences companies and other high technologies; service-centered and light manufacturing among them - air quality is not where it needs to be. Business leaders and elected officials know that Pittsburgh is still landing on a lot of bad lists that rank cities for air quality. Part of this is due to better science in investigating air quality and better tools to do the measuring. A lot of that good work is funded by this region's philanthropic community through Pittsburgh's own universities.

As we learn more, the bar continues to be raised higher. Also, a lot of the region's fine, particulate matter pollution drifts in from industrial power sources in the Midwest. But despite these issues, which may require federal action to settle, Pittsburghers have the power to reduce much of the air pollution problem hovering over them now. There are practices and behaviors that need to change, just as business leaders, elected officials and residents realized was necessary in the years leading up to the smoke control debate.

Industry CEOs don't need to wait for a government regulation to take steps to clean up regional plants that have some of the highest rates of fine-particulate emissions in the country. Government officials at municipal and county levels don't need to wait for federal mandates to demand strong enforcement of existing air-quality standards by health boards and other agencies at the local level. They don't need to wait for the federal lead to retrofit fleets of diesel buses in public transportation systems with equipment that would reduce soot emissions by 30 percent. School district boards need not wait for police action to self-enforce regulations against diesel school buses idling longer than five minutes. And residents need not wait for an air pollution crisis to make smarter energy consumer choices - from buying cleaner-emitting vehicles to taking public transportation. They can embrace renewable sources of energy and join groups that advocate for policy changes that would bring dramatic improvement in air quality.

Pittsburgh has the power to once again mark itself as a national model for air-quality turnaround. The foundation community in the region is ready to assist in meeting the new challenge, but nothing substantive will happen without the same dedicated partnership of industry, government and citizenry that came together on smoke control.

When Pittsburgh breathes easier, we'll discover what a treasure clean air can be.

Maxwell King is the president of The Heinz Endowments, one of the largest independent philanthropic organizations in the country. Prior to joining The Heinz Endowments in 1999, Mr. King was the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He can be reached at



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